SPENCER MICHELS: 61-year-old Tom Stoppard is in the limelight this season as co-writer of the film "Shakespeare in Love," which has earned him an Academy Award nomination. He came to San Francisco last month to work with the director on the American premiere of his play "Indian Ink." The work is set in India, where the Czech-born Stoppard spent part of his childhood. "Indian Ink," on stage at the American Conservatory Theater, takes place mostly during the Raj, the time of British rule. Like many Stoppard plays, this one probes multiple themes: Love and art, history and culture, and the Raj itself.
FLORA CREWE: You're still doing it, Mr. Das.
NIRAD DAS: You wish me to be less Indian?
FLORA CREWE: Well, I did say that, but I think what I meant was for you to be more Indian, or at any rate Indian, not Englished-up, and all over me like a Labrador and knocking things off tables with your tail.
SPENCER MICHELS: The character, Nirad Das, is an Indian painter, much taken with Flora Crewe, a bohemian British poet visiting India in 1930 for her health.
ACTOR: This, the global day.
ACTOR: The general global day. Okay.
SPENCER MICHELS: Stoppard's dialogue is witty and provocative, the complex ideas not always easy to absorb on first hearing. That presents a challenge for Actor Art Malik and Director Carey Perloff.
CAREY PERLOFF, American Conservatory Theater: His plays are always a tapestry of many, many different threads, and what's breathtaking about them is that the threads actually coalesce. They're quite remarkably complicated and quite remarkably hilarious. And I don't really think there is anybody quite like him. I think certainly Harold Pinter is as great a playwright, but a totally different playwright.
SPENCER MICHELS: Malik says for an actor, a Stoppard script can be difficult, yet fulfilling.
ART MALIK, Actor: With Tom, you do look at it, and you think, "Well, maybe I'm not intelligent enough to understand what this line means when it says, 'the character says yes.' Maybe he's actually meaning maybe, or is it no, or is it a yes, yes, or is it a yes, yes, yes? You know, we don't know. So as an actor, you start investing more into it. And that's part of the joy of it all, that you do invest more and more of your time on a Stoppard play.
GWYNETH PALTROW: Are you the author of the plays of William Shakespeare?
JOSEPH FIENNES: I am.
GWYNETH PALTROW: Then kiss me again, for I am not mistook.
SPENCER MICHELS: In "Shakespeare in Love," Stoppard supplied the sparkling dialogue that punctuated the highly charged romance between the struggling playwright, Will Shakespeare, and a high-born would-be actress. But even amid the froth and passion of the love story, Stoppard shows his fascination with ideas. Judi Dench, playing Queen Elizabeth, mouths Stoppard's own curiosity over whether drama can accurately portray love.
COLIN FIRTH: Nature and truth are the very enemies of playacting. I'll wager my fortune.
JUDI DENCH: I thought you were here because you had none. (Laughter) Well, no one will take your wager, it seems.
JOSEPH FIENNES: 50 pounds.
JUDI DENCH: A very worthy sum for a very worthy question. Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love?
SPENCER MICHELS: For Stoppard, questions like that may be more important than the answers. For over 30 years, Stoppard, through his characters, has wrestled intellectually with a long list of big issues, and especially with language itself. In "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," based on two minor characters from "Hamlet," Guildenstern proclaims, "Words, words. They're all we have to go on." And in the hit play "Arcadia," Stoppard delves into questions of horticulture, academics, love, and, surprisingly, chaos theory in mathematics.
THOMASINA: Each week, I plot your equations dot for dot, X's against Y's and all manner of Algebraical relations, and every week, they draw themselves as commonplace Geometry, as if the world of forms were nothing but arcs and angles. God's truth, Septimus, if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell.
SPENCER MICHELS: Mathematicians at a Berkeley research institute were so impressed that they invited Stoppard to the campus for a chat.
TOM STOPPARD, Playwright: There's a suggestion that numbers have a kind of social behavior, that they're not simply tools of description.
SPENCER MICHELS: Stoppard doesn't pretend to be an expert, just a well- informed, curious playwright. As such, he insists on getting involved in minute details about the production and script of "Indian Ink."
CAREY PERLOFF: Then we keep this, yeah? "Are you not feeling well?"
TOM STOPPARD: We keep that. And the "damn" is new, but it's useful, is it?
CAREY PERLOFF: Yes.
TOM STOPPARD: Yeah, okay.
SPENCER MICHELS: As a dramatic craftsman, Stoppard is in the public eye this year more than ever, as "Indian Ink" plays in San Francisco; his latest play, "The Invention of Love," runs in London; and "Shakespeare in Love" fills movie houses.